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Rights group slams Equatorial Guinea leader's pledges of reforms in transparency, human rights

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — The longtime leader of Equatorial Guinea pledged Monday to make sweeping reforms in transparency and human rights in the country he has ruled for three decades. But an international rights group called it empty posturing from a corrupt leader intent on attracting investors.

Teodoro Obiang Nguema told a meeting of investors and business leaders in Cape Town that his five-point plan will dramatically change conditions in the West African country, which is regularly criticized for its corruption, poor human rights record and grinding poverty despite its tremendous oil wealth.

Obiang said the 10-year plan includes investing "substantial" oil revenues in public projects such as schools, hospitals and infrastructure. He said he also will invite the African Union to review and suggest reforms for the legal system and will bring in the Red Cross to assess the human rights situation.

He said he hopes the plan will "invite investors from across the globe to consider the exciting possibilities with us." He spoke in Spanish while reading from a prepared statement.

"We have a long way to go to achieve this ambitious program of reform and transparency," he said. "In many ways we have to fundamentally change the course of our history and parts of our culture. It will not be easy."

But Robert Palmer, a campaigner for London-based Global Witness, said the speech is an attempt to draw in investors.

"I think he's realized that his current behavior is damaging the chances of Equatorial Guinea of attracting business," Palmer told The Associated Press. "These are vague claims with little detail on how he's going to implement them and, in some cases, they contradict previous actions of the government. ... By looking at all his past experience, we would be very skeptical about his government's commitment to these pledges."

Earlier this month, Global Witness criticized Obiang for sponsoring a $300,000 UNESCO prize bearing his name.

Critics have called the prize — for research aimed at "improving quality of life" — the height of hypocrisy for a country that has seen its infant mortality rise and its school enrollment decline in the past decade.

"I think Obiang is a brutal dictator who is desperately trying to launder his reputation," Palmer said.

The most recent human rights report from the U.S. State Department documented unlawful killings by security forces, torture, arbitrary arrests and severe restrictions on free speech and press.

Obiang said Monday he was aware of "criticisms of my government and even of my family," but said he believed them to be untrue.

His family's personal wealth has also provoked criticism and investigations. A French investigation turned up numerous French assets linked to Obiang that rights groups say were paid for with funds stolen from government coffers. A U.S. Senate report this year accused Obiang's son of moving $110 million in suspect funds into the U.S.

Obiang seized power in a 1979 coup. He has swept several elections since, winning by 97.1 percent in a 2002 poll widely criticized as fraudulent. Last year, Obiang was declared the winner with 95.37 percent of the votes in an election opponents and international human rights groups denounced as a fraud.

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Associated Press Writer Anita Powell contributed to this report from Johannesburg.